My Great-Grandmother Versus the Invisible Gods of Calcutta

Memories from my father—and the curse of Lord Shani.
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Memories from my father—and the curse of Lord Shani.
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Worshipers in Calcutta, praying to Ganesh. (Photo: Saikat Paul/Shutterstock)

One day, during playtime with all the other young gods and goddesses, Lord Shani (“shuh-knee”) accidentally decapitated his friend Ganesh. Everyone fled the scene, knowing Ganesh’s father Lord Shiva (in the Hindu trinity his role is the "Destroyer") would spare no one. Panicked, Shani spotted an elephant; he sliced off the elephant’s head and placed it on his friend’s body. But Shiva was furious and cursed Shani, decreeing that anyone who fell under Shani’s gaze would experience terrible luck. Ganesh’s mother, Parvati, accustomed to talking Shiva down, urged her husband to soften his decree. Shiva didn’t relent, noting that a curse can’t be taken back. But he added a proviso: As soon as Shani looked away from someone, that person would enter a period of prosperity and luck.

My dad was about 20 when, during his annual visit to his grandmother and cousins in Calcutta, he heard that Shani was dropping by.

Dad and his cousin were trading stories, sitting on their grandmother’s bed. Dida (“thee-tha”), the colloquial Bengali term for maternal grandmother, walked in, smiled at them, and moved slowly toward the window. My cousin nudged my dad.

“Look at what she’s going to do.”

As they watched, my dad and his cousin saw Dida clap her hands briskly, then make a shooing motion, all the while commanding: “Go! Go, get away from here! Go!”

My dad was baffled. He turned to his cousin.

“Is it a cat?”

“No, no, just watch.”

Dida continued. “You’ve no business here. Go, go. I won’t have you here.”

It’s important to remember that Dida treated her grandchildren as intellectual equals—peers of whom she was exceedingly fond. She neither patronized nor judged them, and they extended her the same respect. So as Dida stood at the window my dad eyed her with skeptical amusement.

“Who are you talking to?”

“Shani-devta.” (Devta is a Bengali word for god.)

My dad smiled. “Who?”

“Shani—Lord Saturn! He’s right there!”

“Has he descended to the ground himself?”

“I can see him. He’s tall and is very strong. His hair is dark and glossy and very curly. His eyes are tinted red. And he’s looking at this house.”

Dida continued shooing Shani 'til she was satisfied. Slowly she walked back to the bed, where her grandsons were ready to poke good-natured fun at this new behavior.

My dad’s cousin began. “Who was there?”

“Shani. I’ve chased him away.”

My dad jumped in. “It was probably a rickshaw driver.”

“No. I recognize him.”

“Have you got a personal relationship with him?”

“Of course it was him. You don’t know.” Many arguments between elders and children in the household boil down to this: You’re young and you’ve no idea.

“But it’s dark —there can’t have been anyone there.”

“I know him when I see him.”

My paternal great-grandmother was an intelligent and worldly woman. By the time she’d married (age 16) and given birth to the last of her seven children (age 34), she’d read the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran, in addition to Hindu scripture. My father, her favorite grandson, and his two first cousins spent every humid, billowy summer in Dida’s home in Calcutta, from the time he was six until well into his twenties. They were spoiled immensely by the entire household but especially by their Dida: permitted to eat in cafés, to come and go as they pleased, to visit the cinema, to roughhouse in different rooms of the six-story house, to sleep in their grandmother’s room. Her bedroom was spare: white plastered walls a large steel almari (“ull-mah-ree”), or wardrobe—a sort of all-purpose ATM for money, sweets, gifts for the grandchildren for the next religious holiday, sweet biscuits. A heavy ornate bed made of Burmese teak, at least 100 years old by the early 1980s, stood in one corner. The windows had an iron grille, and, like many homes in Calcutta of a certain era, also sported green wooden shutters that shut gently to allow for afternoon naps. The view was level with the house opposite, a rather mysterious building known locally as the Postal Club. Municipal workers used the Club for various reasons, none of which were immediately clear to any neighbors.

During his visits my father would fall in with his cousins in their old patterns: eating everything that came their way, making trips to the cinema, sleeping and reading as they pleased. There was plenty to discuss as they sat on Dida’s bed and she finished up overseeing kitchen operations.

My dad’s cousin had been witnessing their grandmother’s Shani sightings for about a year.

I was six or seven when I first heard the story about Shani. I had my dad repeat the story to me last week and immediately had questions. Dida, at the time of this story, was in her early 60s. The cousin with whom my dad sat that night was in medical school. Wouldn’t the cousin have identified this behavior as an early symptom of dementia? What if Dida had merely seen a rickshaw driver, hidden in the shadows, trying to sleep, and construed him as the local embodiment of Shani?

My father dismissed the very idea of questioning Dida. She was a smart, capable, religious woman who loved her family. This behavior was a simple quirk and not subject to scientific scrutiny.

My dad did admit that Dida had a vivid imagination: Her favorite things in life were, in descending order, reading, writing, and the cinema. Her own husband, a man immersed in the Ganges of his own piety, wasn’t in the least intrigued by culture and stayed in his own amateur homeopath world, tending to the sick with various tablets and tonics. Aside from my own grandmother, who earned an MFA (despite marrying, like her mother, at age 16, and giving birth to my dad at age 17), none of Dida’s children explored any artistic talents they may have had.

What I didn’t bring up during our conversation was that Dida’s “quirk” certainly sounds like dementia to me. This is the side of my family from whom I inherit my clinical depression. It’s not exactly a surprise that my great-grandmother shooed away the god whose gaze is considered unlucky. And lest we forget, Shani’s tale is tinged with racism: his skin was too dark, his hair too curly, so he’s considered unlucky. My great-grandfather was a Brahmin, tall, fair, and handsome, and his wife routinely shooed away a dark and menacing god. Do the math.

Dida died when I was four or five—my dad doesn’t remember the exact year, as he did not attend her funeral. Cremations are powerful, brutal experiences in Hindu culture: ashes to ashes, period. Despite an excellent sense of humor and a rather stern approach in rearing his own kids, my father does not possess the emotional mettle to watch a loved one’s final physical transformation. When I asked him about this, he said he’d perhaps attended only two cremations, “one for someone on your mother’s side, and one for a friend’s parent.” To him, and to me, the best memories of Dida, and of everyone else who helped raise him, are filled with food, jokes, discussions about literature and music—and finally this funny, chilling, slightly sad tale of a dark-skinned, curly-haired god balefully eyeing a home, only to be dismissed by Dida—a woman who simply wouldn’t have it.

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Demon Week is Pacific Standard's series of essays exploring all things diabolical—from devils to dogs, monsters to mental illness.

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